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Will Czech Republic reach its AI, digital identity goals during its EU ‘crisis presidency’?

Will Czech Republic reach its AI, digital identity goals during its EU ‘crisis presidency’?
 

The Czech Republic has taken over from France as host of the presidency of the Council of the European Union for the second half of 2022. It has clear aims for progress on artificial intelligence and the European Digital Wallet project. But it also has major challenges such as the war in Ukraine, Russian energy and global supply chain issues to deal with in what Politico has dubbed a ‘crisis presidency.’

The Czech presidency’s official set of priorities lists them as managing the refugee crisis and Ukraine’s post-war recovery; energy security; strengthening Europe’s defense capabilities and cyberspace security; strategic resilience of the European economy and the resilience of democratic institutions.

The Council of the European Union collaborates with the European Commission and Parliament to develop legislation. The Council, or country hosting it, cannot unilaterally push through new laws, but has influence on the overall process.

Part of the economic resilience section provides a helpful summary for the Czech Republic’s approach: “Striving for full self-sufficiency does not seem to be an immediately viable option for the EU. In order to strengthen strategic resilience, targeted support for technological competitiveness based on own production capacities, together with the deepening of free trade with democratic nations in the world, is essential.”

The priorities text stipulates securing computer chip supply and ICT equipment in general.

“In a number of areas related to new technologies such as artificial intelligence, the EU has the opportunity to take advantage of being the ‘first mover’, which has the possibility to lay down the rules of the global game,” states the priorities list.

For digital identity, the emphasis is on the economic benefits is could bring, rather than empowerment for individuals: “With a view of qualitatively deepening the digital internal market, the Czech Presidency will strive for the adoption of a pan-European tool for the secure and trustworthy proving of a citizen’s identity, the so-called European Digital Identity Wallet, and the creation of an efficient and fair data market.”

The Czech Republic’s priorities are in marked contrast to those of France in the first half of 2022. Climate change is no longer on the shortlist as a priority in itself, but mentioned in areas such as energy security (looking to nuclear energy). While France pushed to control the impact of Big Tech in Europe, it seems the new presidency is more realistic in terms of trying to ensure that tech development continues for the safety and security of Europeans.

Artificial intelligence

“We don’t even have a definition of artificial intelligence,” said Czech Deputy Prime Minister for Digitalization Ivan Bartoš, speaking to Euractiv about the Czech presidency’s approach to digital legislation. He differentiated between algorithms – such as how they affect interactions with accessing government services, for example – and artificial technology itself.

He said the AI Act and the EU’s eID are priorities for his country’s presidency: “we want to get it to the level that we’ve got a general approach during our presidency on both.”

There may be some wrangling involved. The European Parliament has received thousands of suggested amendments to the AI Act.

There is a contrast between how the EU hopes to handle AI compared to how it has handled the digital world with its Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, says Bartoš, where “we were kind of looking backward to what already happened in the work of the internet – how the global players were evolving through the decades, how the data was stored, shared.

“But with artificial technology we are, let’s say, at five to twelve because the technology is evolving pretty fast and we want to put in measures, legal frameworks that would say ‘this is ok,’ ‘this progress,’ something that will bring us to the future and will help the people.”

The presidency will have to contend with calls to ban remote biometric identification in surveillance or even facial recognition entirely.

Politico gives the presidency a 6/10 chance to deliver the AI Act.

Digital identity, wallets

Continued pushing on the Data Act will be necessary for the presidency to make progress on plans for digital identity and accompanying wallets across the bloc.

The Data Act, currently being drafted, should enable people to control how their data is being used. This requires high levels of data protection and also the use of ‘European values’ in data processing, according to an opinion from the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS).

Digital identities that allow people to prove themselves online as well as in person are expected to help everything from the financial sector to government service provision accelerate.

While there is a change in tone from the French presidency, in terms of EU priorities, with the Czech influence on economic benefits to digital ID, domestically both are reasonably pro-digital identity, biometrics and, increasingly, surveillance.

The Czech Republic has issued biometric residence cards since 2011 and on the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine called for Russians traveling in the EU to have biometric ID.

Whether world events will allow enough time and space in the next six months to project manage the bills through remains to be seen.

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